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Writing in the Point of View of a Five Year Old

How do you write in the point of view of a small child in a novel for adults?

Derrick posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m working on a story that begins with a five-year-old girl lost in the woods, and I’m trying to use third person limited POV. People I’ve shown this to (critique partners and such) have commented that the language I use in these scenes is “too advanced” for such a young girl.

For example, if she’s walking through the forest past the magnificent trees, but her vocabulary wouldn’t include “magnificent,” am I stuck using a simpler set of words for her POV? Or can I use my words for describing the environment, and her words for interior monologue and emotion?

How can I keep the scene with my very young character from sounding like a Dr. Suess book?

(PS, she doesn’t stay 5 forever — that would be a tough book to write.)

Randy sez: This is tough. Your goal as a novelist is to give your reader the illusion that she is your point-of-view character.

You have one advantage here: Every adult on the planet was once five years old. So your reader can well identify with that stage in life.

The problem, as you say, is to avoid giving it a Dr. Seuss feel. This is similar to the problem writers always have when writing dialect. If you’ve ever struggled through UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, you know how hard it is to read excessively realistic dialect.

The usual solution when writing dialect is to be realistic on the grammatical patterns but to use correct spellings for all words. So you get the flavor right, even if it’s not precisely accurate. Feelings here are more important than literal accuracy.

There are a couple of novels you ought to read, because they are best-selling novels by major authors and they feature young children. Here they are:

THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, by Jean Auel. An orphaned four year old girl in Ice Age Europe is adopted by a clan of Neanderthals.

ENDER’S GAME, by Orson Scott Card. A six year old boy is taken to an orbiting Battle School to be trained to save mankind from the coming invasion of alien “Buggers.”

Read them both and see how each of these authors did it.

Jean Auel wrote her story in omniscient voice, which let her use adult language to tell the story and to occasionally shift into the child’s mind when necessary.

Orson Scott Card used a character with an extremely high IQ. Even so, when inside Ender’s head, he used simple words and simple sentence patterns. You don’t need big words to tell big ideas.

Either of these ways works, Derrick. Take your pick.

But first things first. Read both of these books. Get a feel for the rhythms these authors use.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

A Tale of Two Geniuses

I write novels featuring “geniuses in jeopardy,” so it seems fitting to pay tribute to two geniuses who’ve hit the headlines this week.

Saul Perlmutter

Saul Perlmutter won the Nobel Prize in physics this week for his work in astrophysics. Back in the 1990s, Saul’s team showed that the universe is not merely expanding — it’s accelerating.

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, this can be explained by the existence of so-called “dark energy” which pervades the universe. It was a revolutionary discovery, and another team made essentially the same discovery at essentially the same time. Two physicists from that team shared the prize with Saul.

I single out Saul because, back in 1981, I was a second-year graduate student in physics at UC Berkeley. That year, I was the teaching assistant for the standard class in electromagnetic theory that all first-year grad students were required to take. My job was to grade the homework. I had 56 students in the class, as I recall, and I found that five of them consistently got perfect scores on their homework. One of those five was a guy named Saul Perlmutter.

If my memory is correct, Saul was the one who always wrote his assignments in blue ink with beautiful handwriting. I might be mistaken; it’s been 30 years. It might have been one of the other four. But that’s what my memory tells me.

As it turned out, Saul and I both wound up finishing our Ph.D. theses in the fall of 1986, which meant that we graduated in the same UC Berkeley physics department commencement exercises in the spring of 1987. I dug out the commencement program this morning and found that he’s listed just across from me on the opposite page.

Saul went on to do some truly elegant work automating the discovery of supernovae, which led a decade later to his remarkable discovery. I know Saul doesn’t read my blog; nevertheless, I have this to say. “Kudos, Saul! You’ve done a fantastic job and the Nobel is well deserved.”

500 years from now, the astronomical advances of the 20th century may well be summarized for third graders in one sentence like this: “Edwin Hubble showed that the universe is expanding and Saul Perlmutter showed that it’s actually accelerating.”

Steve Jobs

Tragically, Steve Jobs made the headlines yesterday. I was devastated when I read that he’d died. I’m typing this blog on a MacBook Pro while I’m listening to music on my iMac. There’s an iPhone in my pocket. In my backpack, my iPad is charging. My life is built on tools and toys that Steve created. I can hardly believe he’s gone.

Steve Jobs brought elegance and art to computer engineering. There was simply nobody like him. He not only made the world a better place, he made it a qualitatively DIFFERENT place. Let me explain that.

Years ago, I had a boss who tried to summarize in a few sentences how computer science has evolved over the decades. “The key insight that made computers possible in the 1940s was the idea that everything is a number. The key insight that made Unix the best operating system in the 1970s was the idea that everything is a string of text. The key insight that made the Mac insanely great in the 1980s was the idea that everything is a picture.”

Numbers are for geeks. Text is for geeks. Pictures are for everybody. Qualitatively different.

If Steve could see this blog, I’d want him to read this: “Kudos Steve! You put beauty and elegance back into engineering. You were insanely great.”

500 years from now, first-year engineering students may very well be studying how Steve fused art and engineering to create elegant devices. First-year business students may very well be studying how Steve brought Apple back from the brink when he returned to the company in late 1996 and executed the business comeback of the century.